Twelve thousand years ago, the average temperature in the southeastern United States was five to 10 degrees cooler than it is now, and the climate was drier. The landscape was covered with oak and pine forests mixed with open grasslands. Some familiar animals such as rabbits and deer lived in the area, but many other animals that have become extinct in North America were also common then. Among them were the camel, giant armadillo, short-faced bear, long-horned bison, mastodon, tapir, ground sloth, saber-toothed tiger, mammoth, dire wolf, and horse (the horse was later reintroduced by the Spanish).
Early Paleo-Indian Point
The earliest Indians in Louisiana, called Paleo-Indians, hunted these animals using spears tipped with stone points. These lanceolate points were two to six inches long and had bases that were either straight or rounded inward. The Paleo-Indians in Louisiana made their points from carefully selected varieties of stone that appear to have come from neighboring regions in Texas and Arkansas.
A stone point was fastened directly to a wooden shaft with hide, fiber, or an adhesive substance, or it was attached to a bone section that was connected to the spear shaft.
To pierce the skin of one of the large animals, such as a mastodon or mammoth, the hunters had to be close to the powerful beast. They hurled or jabbed their spears at the animal and tried to confuse and immobilize their prey. Perhaps several hunters surrounded an isolated animal, waved their arms, and distracted it while one or two others speared it. If the animal was wounded, the hunters would have tracked it until it became very weak or went to water to drink. Even a mastodon, wounded and exhausted, or mired in the mud of a shallow lake, would have been relatively easy game for a small group of experienced hunters.
Paleo-Indians slaying a mammoth
Men and older boys almost certainly were the hunters for the Paleo-Indian groups. Women and children collected fruits, seeds, roots, and other plant foods to supplement their diet.
Paleo-Indians lived in small nomadic groups that remained in an area only as long as the animals and plant foods were plentiful. Evidence indicates that they camped near streams in temporary shelters made of branches, grass, and hides. At other times, they preferred high ground where they could see the countryside to watch for animals. The camp may have had a central area for group activities surrounded by living areas where families cooked and slept. These people probably used animal skins for clothing and as blankets, and they may have had dogs as hunting companions. They did not raise other animals or grow crops. They used no metal and made no pottery.
Louisiana Paleo-Indian sites (areas where remains are found) are not common, because the small groups of nomadic Indians left very few artifacts at any location. In time, high rainfall and humidity led to decay and erosion of many ancient sites while changing geography led to the disappearance of others. The sea level has risen, so any Paleo-Indian coastal remains are now on the ocean floor. Sites once along the Mississippi River have been washed away or deeply buried as the river shifted its course and deposited silt. Most Paleo-Indian spear points found in Louisiana have been collected from ridges, hills, and salt domes. Generally, these areas have not been affected by stream changes or sea level fluctuations that have occurred since the Ice Age.
Both early and late Paleo-Indian Period materials have been found at the John Pearce Site in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. At the lowest (oldest) level, two early Paleo-Indian stone points were uncovered. A wide variety of later materials were excavated from higher levels. The site was used by small groups of people who camped there temporarily. These people used the site as a base camp for hunting, butchering, and hide-working activities.
As the Ice Age drew to a close, Louisiana began to change. The climate gradually became warmer and wetter, and many large Ice Age animals became extinct. The way of life of the Paleo-Indians began to change, too.
Late Paleo-Indians fashioned a variety of stone tools used to butcher game, prepare plant foods, tailor hides, and work bone and wood. They also manufactured many kinds of stone points that were generally smaller than the earlier points. These late Paleo-Indian tools were made from Louisiana stone, a change from the earlier times.
Early and Late Paleo-Indian Period Stone Points
Sites of the late Paleo-Indian Period are more numerous than early Paleo-Indian sites. Their sites are characterized by more artifacts, and more varieties of artifacts, than earlier Paleo-Indian sites. This suggests that the population increased and that these people camped longer in one place.
The gradual transition from the late Paleo-Indian to the early Meso-Indian Period had occurred by 6000 B.C. Meso-Indians, also called Archaic Indians, lived in small nomadic groups. Unlike their predecessors, however, they remained longer in each camp location and exploited smaller geographical areas. Whereas a Paleo-Indian might roam from Texas to Mississippi in his lifetime, rarely returning to the same place, a Meso-Indian might spend his whole life in a six-parish area, returning each season to favored campsites.
Seasonal movements of the Meso-Indians were determined by the best times to hunt and gather certain foods. Clams, fish, and deer were available year-round, so Meso-Indians often stayed near streams, where these foods were plentiful. This strategy was especially critical in the winter months when plant foods were least available. The Indians camped where they could collect tender, young plants in the spring; fruits in the summer; and acorns, pecans, and walnuts in the fall. Meso-Indians had a varied diet, eating seeds, roots, nuts, fruits, fish, clams, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals.
The Banana Bayou Site, on Avery Island salt dome in Iberia Parish, is a man-made earthen mound, 80 feet in diameter and three feet tall. Charcoal from the mound gave the radiocarbon date of 2490 +- 260 years B.C. Nut shells and fish, deer, and turtle bones have been found in the mound, as well as stone points that are characteristic of the Meso-Indian Period. These findings lead archaeologists to conclude that the site is one of the earliest mounds in the United States.
As Meso-Indian family groups traveled, they met other hunting groups and sometimes camped together. These were important times for social and ceremonial activities. Sometimes these large groups camped together for a season or more, near rivers or near the coast where dependable food resources could support many families.
Dogs may have been kept as pets and may have helped in hunting. Meso-Indians developed many new hunting and fishing techniques. They used fishhooks, traps, and nets for catching fish and other small animals, and they used a new weapon called the atlatl (pronounced at'latl) to help kill their most important prey, deer.
Meso-Indian: four points and a drill
An atlatl was made from a flattish, two-foot-long piece of wood and was used as a spear-thrower. It had a hook, made of bone or antler, attached on one end and a hand grip carved on the other end. A stone, clay, or shell weight was sometimes attached toward the hooked end to increase the force of the throw, or perhaps only for decoration. A spear was rested on the atlatl with the end of the spear shaft inserted into the atlatl hook. The hunter held the atlatl grip and the middle of the spear in the same hand, then he hurled the spear from the atlatl. The atlatl acted as an extension of his arm, giving extra power and accuracy to the throw.
The Meso-Indian spears used with the atlatl differed from those Paleo-Indians used. They were shorter, and the stone points were different. Meso-Indian spear points were chipped from local stone, and they were slightly larger and not as artistically made as late Paleo-Indian points. Beyond these general trends, however, many Meso-Indian points found in Louisiana have little in common with each other. The sides of some are curved, others are straight, and some are serrated. Some are wider at the base, some are narrower, and others have notches in the base. The variations in shape seem almost unlimited.
Hunter using an Atlatl
In contrast to the changes in types of points, Meso-Indians continued making their stone butchering and hide-working tools in much the same way as the Paleo-Indians. Meso-Indians also fabricated non-stone tools and ornaments. They made bone needles, awls, fishhooks, beads, and hairpins; and antler atlatl hooks, handles, and spear points. Less common objects were tortoise shell rattles and shell ornaments.
Meso-Indians developed new tools as they increased their knowledge of plant resources. They made baskets to carry and store seeds, roots, fruits, and nuts. They cracked nut shells with specially shaped stones, and ground nuts and seeds into meal with grinding stones.
Grinding Stones and Ax
The Meso-Indians also made axes and chopping tools for cutting down trees and hollowing out tree trunks. Like the atlatl weights, grinding stones, pipes, and stone ornaments, some of these axes were made using a new technique. Instead of being flaked, these stone tools were roughly pecked into desired shapes with a hard hammerstone, then ground smooth with sandstone or sand and water. When completed, some of these ground stone tools had highly polished surfaces.
Although the methods of hunting, gathering plants, and making tools remained relatively unchanged throughout the Meso-Indian Period, some things were changing. Gradually the population expanded. Groups began to move less frequently and to travel over smaller areas. They learned more about their environment as they began living, from one season to another in the same general area. Apparently some Louisiana Meso-Indians remained in one place long enough to build earthen mounds. These sites have from one to as many as four mounds, and the mounds themselves consist of single- or multiple-stage constructions. Radiocarbon dates for these Louisiana mounds suggest that they are the earliest known mounds in North America.
During the Neo-Indian Period, the population expanded and some groups became sedentary, staying in one place for extended periods. Most Meso-Indian tools continued to be used by Neo-Indians, but added to these were stone and pottery vessels, baked clay balls, and many decorative or ceremonial objects. Also, shell and earthen mounds were built regularly.
The Neo-Indian Period lasted from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1600 and included the following cultures: Poverty Point, Tchefuncte, Marksville, Troyville-Coles Creek, Caddo, and Plaquemine-Mississippian. These groups differed from one another in when and where they lived, as well as in the objects and earthworks they made.